A perfect fusion of flavors and textures, gumbo is an ideal dish by Susan Benton
New Orleans is a fascinating city, well known for its diversity, culture and rich heritage. And, if it were put in a big pot to simmer, with additional spices sprinkled in, you’d find the most creative and flavor packed gumbo.
Gumbo originated in Louisiana in the 18th century, but there is no evidence to pinpoint the exact origin of the food. Many believe, as do I, that the word gumbo is derived from the word kingombo, which is Bantu for okra, a popular ingredient in West African cooking, and the main ingredient in the dish itself. If you don’t have okra in your gumbo, well, you might as well call it soup.
The Choctaw Indians were found to have developed the spicy filé (pronounced [FEE-lay]) powder, another key additive made from sassafras leaves. But the French lay claim to the main thickening agent known as the roux, which is equal parts fat and flour.
I learned to make Creole gumbo, which is rich in flavor and steeped in tradition, in high school when my father was stationed as a naval officer in New Orleans. Later, as an educator in Louisiana’s Ascension Parish, I was fortunate to try my hand cooking Cajun gumbo alongside celebrity chef John Folse at his restaurant Lafitte’s Landing, located near my work place.
Both Cajun gumbo and Creole gumbo begin with the holy trinity of onion, celery and green bell pepper. But broadly speaking, Creoles (descendants settling in Louisiana from France, Spain, Africa, Italy, Germany and the Caribbean) typically would add tomatoes, where Cajuns (Acadians migrating from Canada) would not. Creole gumbo is often seafood heavy and cooked in butter, while Cajun is meat and crawfish laden, and cooked in lard or oil.
In the South, on the day after the Thanksgiving and during the winter holidays, especially with hunting season in full gear, fowl or duck and sausage gumbo often takes center stage. But seafood is always a favorite, especially with folks like me living near or visiting Seaside’s Gulf of Mexico, where we have such a fresh abundance of it.
Whether its Creole or Cajun gumbo you are wanting, the roux is the key to making the best pot. A mix of equal parts flour and fat cooked in a constant gentle motion on the stove top for about 20-30 minutes until it turns milk chocolate in color, the roux is at its peak before burning. However, if you have gone too far and have scorched the mixture, toss it out and begin again. I promise, it can’t be salvaged.
If you’re not in the mood to make a big pot of gumbo, Bud & Alley’s Waterfront Restaurant, The Shrimp Shack, and Great Southern Café in Seaside all offer a fine cup or bowl of the seafood variety.
However, if you’re looking to try your hand at whipping up a batch like a pro, Chef Jim Shirley’s recipe for shrimp and crab filé gumbo from Great Southern Café is worth every effort. Plan to pick up a bottle of sauvignon blanc from Modica Market, as it pairs well with this dish.
Susan Benton is a 30A local, a freelance food and travel writer, and the owner of 30AEATS.com, where she shares her recipes, stories and her commitment to promoting area farmers, fishermen, chefs, artisans and restaurants along the Gulf Coast.
Chef Jim Shirley’s Shrimp and Crab Filé Gumbo
7 pounds heads-on shrimp, peeled; reserve shells and heads
3 pounds blue crabmeat
8 bay leaves
2 cups olive oil
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 pounds white onion, diced
7 ribs celery with leaves, diced
1/3 cup minced garlic
1/2 cup minced shallots
1 pound red bell peppers, diced
1 pound poblano peppers, diced
1 pound green bell peppers, diced
3 pounds okra, chopped
3 pounds tomatoes, diced
1/4 cup paprika
1/4 cup ground oregano
1/4 cup whole thyme
2 tablespoons ground thyme
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper powder
1/4 cup filé powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon lemon peel, minced
3 ounces Worcestershire sauce
1 bottle Sauvignon Blanc
Get your biggest pot out of the cupboard and throw in the shrimp shells, heads and 2 bay leaves. Cover with water. Boil for about 15 minutes, then strain off the shells and heads. You should have about a gallon of shrimp stock; if you are over, leave on high, reduce to 1 gallon and reserve.
Prepare the roux:
While the stock boils, heat a cast iron skillet to medium high, pour in 1½ cups of the olive oil, add flour and start stirring. About the time you can’t stir anymore, the roux will turn a nice chocolate brown. Set aside. Don’t splash any on your skin; it sticks and burns like napalm.
Pour the remaining olive oil (½ cup) into a large sauté pan set on medium high, toss in the onions and celery and sauté till they start to brown. Add garlic and shallots and sauté for 2 more minutes; then dump in the peppers, okra and tomatoes and sauté for 3 minutes.
Shake in the paprika, oregano, thyme, cayenne and filé, sauté for 3 more minutes, then tumble the lot into the shrimp stock and crank up to high. Toss in the lemon peel and the remaining bay leaves (6) along with shrimp, crabmeat, Worcestershire, black pepper and salt; bring to a boil. The roux should still be hot; start drizzling and stirring it into the stock. Be sure to keep stirring about now to get the mix right. Turn heat to low and let the whole batch simmer for 3 hours or so, stirring occasionally.
Get out some hot sauce and some French bread for sopping, pour the Sauvignon Blanc, and call in the troops. To me, gumbo tastes better the next day. So, you can let it cool a bit, make room in the fridge and call in the troops tomorrow. Reheat slowly and stir frequently; don’t ruin the batch by burning the bottom.
Note from Susan:
I added 1 pound of sliced andouille sausage coins to the sauté pan with file in last 3 minutes of this recipe.